What is Net Neutrality?

If you’ve ever felt that your big brother always got better birthday presents than you or noticed that the baseball coach always put his son first in the batting order, you know what playing favorites means. Sometimes, it seems like life is a bit more “fair” to some people than others. Unfortunately, playing favorites is a part of life. It happens in your family. It happens at work. And now it’s happening on the Internet.

Yep, the Internet Service Providers plays favorites. On December 14, 2017 the FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality laws in place during the Obama era.

So what is net neutrality.

Think of it this way: Let’s say that you order a pair of tennis shoes from Shoe Warehouse. Shoe Warehouse packs your shoes and then pays the USPS to deliver them to you. The shoes arrive at your house. Simple enough.

In this story, the post office is a “neutral” party. This means that as long as everyone follows the postal laws and pays the right postage, they will deliver the package. To the USPS, it’s just a package. Applied to the internet, when you watch a movie on Netflix, it should stream without problems because you have paid your Internet Service Provider (e.g. Verizon) to use their connection to the internet. Barring any technical problems, Verizon should allow the movie to stream from Netflix to your home without a hitch and at streaming speeds promised in your data plan with them.

(Image: Jonathan Grossman)

But what if the USPS suddenly decides they don’t like Shoe Warehouse? What if they tell Shoe Warehouse they will now deliver their shoes last? Or, maybe they have a special deal with Shoes Unlimited and decide to deliver all of their packages first - even if you have paid express shipping! In other words, the USPS no longer considers every package as equal. They are now playing favorites. They are no longer neutral. Luckily for us, this hasn’t happened to our postal service. This has, however, happened on the Internet.

(Image: Jonathan Grossman)

The Internet used to be a neutral place — there was net neutrality, but not anymore.

In 2010, the FCC ordered the Internet Service Providers such as Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner and Comcast to keep the Internet neutral. But on December 14, 2017 the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality. As a result, Internet Service Providers can monitor the Internet and decide which information gets delivered and how fast it gets delivered. Quite simply, they now play favorites.

For the consumer, the Internet is now a bit like the Wild West. The absence of net neutrality is too new to accurately predict what’s going to happen. Perhaps, one of them may allow HBO movies to stream faster than Netflix movies. Or (less likely) maybe you’ll only be able to shop at online stores that have a relationship with your Internet Service Provider. Worse yet, you will no longer have access to information on the net that your Internet Service Provider disagrees with. Effectively censoring the Internet. No longer will there be free press on the Internet!

As the magic eight ball says, “Cannot predict now.” But keep an eye on the news: The lack of net neutrality will start to shape the Internet in the near future.

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